Winning and losing: how Nixon learned the game

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Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962, by Stephen E. Ambrose. New York: Simon & Schuster. 752 pp. $22.95. It had been one of those unforgettable days, back in the early 1970s, that made you wear your patriotic heart on your sleeve. The Stars and Stripes was flying proudly against the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty. A large crowd was on hand - this newsman included. And there, standing in the middle, arms waving overhead in that familiar pose of apparent self-assurance, was the President himself, Richard M. Nixon.

Oh yes, a few hecklers were on hand, outside roped-off areas. The President rebuked them. There would be no denigrating the United States! How had the protesters even managed to get near the President, some bystanders wondered, what with security and all? Days later, some of the demonstrators explained to the press that tickets had unexpectedly arrived for them in the mail. No, they didn't know who had sent them. Were the protesters there by accident? Or, had someone in Nixon's entourage, perhaps the President himself, wanted a natural ``enemy'' to rail against that day?

For so many Americans of the post-World War II era, Richard Milhous Nixon was the national political leader one never seemed quite able to trust, as the above incident illustrates. Yet, he also seemed indispensable to the US political process, serving his nation as a member of the US House, the Senate, two terms as vice-president, and, finally, being elected twice as President.

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Stephen E. Ambrose, who has written an excellent study of Dwight Eisenhower, has produced an equally impressive biography of the early Nixon. Ambrose traces Nixon from the latter's semi-hard-scrabble childhood, through the Washington years, and down to his failed attempt to be elected governor of California. Ambrose is now working on a second volume on Nixon. Taken as a whole, this will likely become the definitive work on America's most enigmatic 20th-century President. In a sense, it is also a moral primer that should be required reading in civics courses. It shows that raw intellect, untempered by a scrupulous and continuing regard for truth, is an insufficient qualification for the nation's highest office.

Bright, articulate, well-educated, versed in the intricacies of foreign affairs, Richard Nixon underscored the good and dark sides of US policy: a rigid anticommunist, he nonetheless went to Moscow and China, launched d'etente, consummated arms agreements; a free-enterprise-loving, anti-big government Republican, he gave Americans a complicated program of wage and price controls; a lawyer-turned-President, he eventually helped bring the US political system to its knees with Watergate.

Nixon, as a child, could only be considered exemplary. A good student, he was forever seeking to please persons of authority, whether teachers, siblings, schoolmates - but particularly his parents, a hard-working Quaker couple. He was the type of fastidious lad who was remembered by a schoolteacher as never ``getting dirty.''

Yet, for Nixon, life always seemed to be a struggle - and long-range campaign - whether courting young Patricia Ryan, whom he married, or running for political office. Those who stood in his way, like California Congressman Jerry Voorhis in 1946, and Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1950, when he was running for the Senate, quickly learned that whatever Nixon's scriptural beliefs, his was not a gentle pacificism in a political contest. Winning, whether in school debates, on the football field, in an election campaign, became the end all. Ironically, despite Nixon's relentless ambition and his struggle to please others, he was always the outsider, as distrusted by others (including President Eisenhower), as he was so distrustful of them.

Still, Ambrose is balanced and objective about his subject. Nixon, he shows, could be astute and fair. An internationalist, Nixon supported the Marshall Plan, as well as civil rights on the homefront. In the 1960 presidential contest against John Kennedy, Nixon ``personally was disturbed that religion had become an issue ... he was entirely free of anti-Catholic prejudice.''

This book leaves Nixon in 1962, after his loss in the California gubernatorial race. He seems finally defeated, though we, of course, with hindsight, know that is not to be. Final defeat will come later - with Watergate. But did it? Guess who is back in the news these days, looking fit, and exercising the role of national foreign policy statesman?

Nixon remains the ultimate American riddle. His is a case where the boy - the young, earnest, hard-driving, no-nonsense boy out in California in the 1920s and '30s - is clearly to be found in the man. Reading Ambrose, one sees the Darth Vader side of Nixon. But one also recognizes the enormous talent. And one rediscovers Nixon's unique ability to survive and return from political banishment again ... and again ... and ....

Guy Halverson covered the Rodino hearings into Watergate for the Monitor.

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